The versatile actor talks about his new film ‘Fairhaven,’ ‘Mad Men,’ and Life…quite literally
Many people know Rich Sommer as the actor playing Harry Crane on AMC’s wildly popular hit “Mad Men,” but Sommer has saturated the screen in many other small roles as well. In Fairhaven, which opens Friday, he plays Sam, a recently divorced dad who reunites with his two friends for one of their father’s funerals. He co-stars with leads Chris Messina and first-time director Tom O’Brien, who also wrote the film. Other films he completed this past year included “The Giant Mechanical Man” and “Celeste and Jesse Forever,” and in the spring he made his Broadway debut in the play “Harvey,” alongside actor Jim Parsons.
P&P: You’ve worked with a lot of different filmmakers and TV writers and actors. What’s been the key to your success so far in terms of working with so many different personalities?
RS: The people I’ve gotten to work with, one thing leads to another. I did the Office because I met Mindy Kaling at a party and we hit it off and she offered me a role on the office. When I was shooting The Office, all of my scenes were with Jenna Fischer and Jenna and I hit it off and so then Jenna asked me to read a part for a movie she was looking at doing which I then got cast in. The lead in it (The Giant Mechanical Man) was Chris Messina and Chris and I were sitting at the bar talking and he showed me the script for Fairhaven. I think its all just sort of a series of connections.
P&P: I heard you signed on to “Fairhaven” because you wanted to work with Chris Messina again. Had you even looked at your character before you signed on?
RS: I did look at the character and the script but I also was ready to say yes before any of that just for the chance to get to work with Chris again. In Mechanical Man we had no interaction on screen except for a handshake, but off screen we hit it off pretty quickly and we really liked each other and I was ready to jump at the chance to actually have some screen-time with him. But the fact that it was a story I really loved and a character that I really loved- it was sort of a no-brainer.
P&P: Did you get a chance to see Chris during the film Celeste and Jesse Forever (which he also co-stars in)?
RS: I didn’t see him on set. I did three films during the Mad Men hiatus and Chris was in all three of them. So he may be my good luck charm. I would definitely work with him again.
P&P: Chris helped write Fairhaven. Have you ever had the desire to write or direct at all?
RS: Directing sort of terrifies me. Writing I’ve thought about because I think it makes sense to generate your own material. I’m not a writer, and I would need a writing partner. I have a friend and we sort of dabbled a little bit, but it hasn’t really set anything official in motion. Someday I imagine I will work in some way on a story, but right now as long as I can keep making my living doing acting, it’s the far simpler (chuckling) and easier side of the business. I will ride that as long as I can.
P&P: So your character is going through dry spell literally and figuratively -divorcing his wife and learning how to be a single dad- have you ever had any slumps or difficult transitioning moments in your life like that?
RS: Oh yeah. Luckily, not on the marriage front. But I’ve been in long relationships that when they’ve ended, you think you want out of the relationship, all you want is out of the relationship. The second you’re out of the relationship, you’re like “Oh my god, I can’t live without that relationship.” I’ve certainly spun out a couple times in my life, but career wise, it’s only slumps with little peaks. In this profession, as far as paid working, I only work about fifty, sixty days out of the year. So the other 310, 315 days I’m freaking out because I’m not working that day. So it’s constant, it’s all valleys with a couple of peaks, but I think the peaks help equalize the valleys.
P&P: I want to ask you about the scene in the boat when you prematurely ejaculate. How did you approach that scene? I can imagine it was a little awkward.
RS: To Tom O’Brien’s credit, Tom was very open to us, Natalie Gold and me, to set out that scene. We knew the bones of it, that what was going to happen was going to happen, but the tone of it went through different phases. We had a lot of conversations of how funny should the moment be and I voted that it shouldn’t really be that funny. It’s a potentially dark moment for Sam, it’s a potentially super-humiliating moment, and this woman who he’s found, the first person he’s connected with in a long time, really doesn’t let him be embarrassed by that moment and really lets him know, “hey, hey, it’s cool, shit happens.” I loved how Natalie played that scene, I loved that Tom let us find those beats and rhythm of the scene. I’m really, really pleased with that scene; it’s maybe one of my favorite scenes I’ve ever done.
P&P: What’s the difference like working on Mad Men where you’ve got these mega stars and then taking time off to work in a piece like “Fairhaven” and a rookie like Tom O’Brien?
RS: One thing that Tom has in spades is an ability to say, “I don’t know,” which for me has always been my favorite quality in an educator or director, somebody who when you say, “what does this mean?,” the answer can be, “honestly, I don’t know.” Which then leads to collaboration and discussion. And Tom was really willing to, especially Chris, let us weigh in on story beats, on feelings of scenes, the tempo of the scene, and to really let us “play” in scenes. Any moments that are funny in the movie are born out of this relationship that the three of us have in real life.
P&P: I know you on screen well enough to spot you, but its funny, some friends and family rarely recognize you in anything but Mad Men because your hair isn’t parted. Did you ever consider the greased down parted hair look?
RS: (Laughing) My daily challenge is trying to look as little like Harry Crane as possible. He really shows you what was bad about the sixties as far as style goes. He’s not a person to emulate so I try not to look like him
P&P: You’re in the middle of shooting for Mad Men season 6 right?
RS: Yes, we’re on episode six right now.
P&P: What’s the tone of Season 6?
RS: Every season has its own tone, its own flavor. This is no exception. I am LOVING these scripts, we just had a read-through of script six. Uhh! It’s so good! For my money, these writers, they don’t know how to let the other shoe drop. It’s been very exciting to be a part of that.
P&P: What’s one thing fans of the show may not really know about Mad Men? Anything you guys do on set no one else does or anything weird about the scripts?
RS: The only thing I can think of is that these characters have become molded onto us. So there are aspects to Harry Crane that are very like me. And there are aspects to say, Harry Crane’s relationship with Peter Campbell that are very much like my relationship with Vincent Kartheiser or Harry’s relationship with Ken that’s like my relationship with Aaron Staton. I think it’s weird for us because it’s going to be this little time capsule because watching the show feels, sometimes, not always thank god, like its watching us interact with each other. Even though it’s through the veneer of the sixities and a script that we didn’t write, you still can see some honest representation of our relationships on screen.
P&P: You worked on Broadway this past summer. Was it hard to get that kind of relationship on stage as opposed to on screen?
RS: I don’t know. It’s different on stage, I mean you are allowed to play farther than yourself I think, and you can be sort of a bigger character than you can on screen. I mean there are amazing people who create amazing characters – Daniel Day Lewis, Meryl Streep, and those guys who really go far from themselves. But for the most part on film, you see a character is about 98% the person playing him and 2% of a little spin in the character. On stage it’s a much bigger difference, so the relationships play out differently. I didn’t get to be with Jim Parsons where we are at all in real life. We get along famously, but our characters on stage are bitter enemies, so it’s a different thing.
P&P: I hear you’re a big board game aficionado. How did that start?
RS: I was always into games, but when I went to grad school in Cleveland, I went to a game store that was going out of business, and started looking at a few of the games there, looking them up online, and saw there was this whole community of board gamers and games that I had just never even heard of. Now, I’m speaking to you from my office, which is less an office, there’s a desk in the corner. It’s more a board game room with a working table and all of my board games. I adore it.
P&P: So with all your gaming experience how closely does the game of Life resemble life itself?
RS: I’ll be honest I haven’t played the game of Life since I was nine years old, and I remember hating it. So I can’t imagine it mirrors it very well because I’m a fan of where my life is now.